Can a non-biologist successfully complete a chemical biology PhD? Of course. But what is the most efficient way to go from noob to expert? Here I’ll discuss how to do that in 6ish steps.
Being the senior member in a chemical biology lab means I work with people from vast backgrounds. We have biomedical engineers, polymer chemists, biochemists, molecular biologists, organic chemists, and more oh my! So, with this type of diversity I get asked this question a lot from new chemistry students: “I have no background in biology. Is this going to be a problem for me to do my PhD in this lab?”
First, I’ll explore what the question is really asking.
Moving outside your comfort zone
Typically this question is asked because the individual is feeling way outside their comfort zone. That’s understandable. Biology to non-biologist is a huge black box that does not conform to building knowledge off of first principles in the same way that chemistry does.
But if you open up a biology text book or scan through the literature you will see that biology is merely the big picture view of what underlying chemistry is at play. And that thought has always brought me comfort because it means that biology can be broken down into smaller pieces that do come from first principles.
You know how to learn
You aren’t starting at scratch. From nothing. By now you are somewhere between being well into your degree as an undergrad to an expert in a certain field outside of biology. You aren’t a fresh noob on the first day of school. So give yourself some credit in your ability to learn.
You also have a major thing going for you: Curiosity. As the saying goes, that’s something that can’t be taught.
Now that we have hopefully conquered some impostor syndrome, let’s explore how you can get up to speed on what you need to know ASAP.
Learning your specific biology field: 6 Steps
1) Get the common knowledge
What are the things that every Master’s student could tell you about your specific field in biology? You probably don’t know, but you need to know those concepts in order to start digging into the literature.
I recommend selectively reading from the featured image of this post: Molecular Biology of The Cell. This is considered the “Bible” of molecular biology. The older (I had no clue it was old now) 5th edition is also available for super cheap.
One thing I love about this book is that it starts right off with chemistry. And continues this theme of showing the underlying chemistry of the molecular biology all through out the book. After the first few chapters you should be able to have enough knowledge to selectively flip around to what you think is related to your specific field of interest.
2) Audit a biology class
I came from a dual background in medicinal chemistry and molecular biology before starting my PhD. Then I entered the strange world of immunology. I knew that reading the basics alone wasn’t going to be enough and that I needed another form of learning to compliment my reading.
Thus, I audited the undergraduate introduction to immunology.
This worked well because as a grad student you will comprehend the knowledge typically faster than an undergrad (possibly because you are actually doing the READING from the textbook), which allows you to move faster than the professor through the slides.
Importantly, it allowed me to listen to the information and make connections that I otherwise would have missed. I also found the professor to be very accessible and excited to answer my questions because he knew I had a true interest in his field.
3) Literature deep dive
You can do this step after completing some of step 1.
It’s time to look specifically for your biology topic in a recent review. I recommend a review from within the last 2-5 years. If the field doesn’t have one then you have either stumbled upon something really new that is probably derived from a closely related sub-field, or you aren’t looking right. See how to handle the literature here.
Read that review in detail. Google terms you don’t know. Read the citation’s introductions (for now only the introductions, time is of the essence). You will find the same things being introduced over and over again. By the 10th time you will be able to predict what will be discussed next in the introduction. That’s when you know you have sufficient understanding to proceed to the next step.
4) Have an expert for tea/coffee
Here you want to make sure to do the following 4 things:
- Explain to an expert in this field your understanding of the project, the basic concepts, the novelty, and your approach.
- Ask them to correct you if you misspeak at any point.
- Then ask them what they think the novelty is in the approach and what other approaches may answer your hypothesis or do the same thing.
- Take notes during this whole conversation or even better, record it (with permission).
This is a reality check to see where your level of understanding is and to correct common misconceptions about your new field before you get too far into designing and doing experiments. You want to make sure you are testing the right hypothesis (or targeting the right pathways) and that there aren’t any glaring errors. The next step will compliment this last point.
5) Give a formal lab group presentation early
I know. You are cringing now. There is nothing worse than being judged by your peers especially when you still feel like you have no idea what is going on. It will feel awkward and you might feel stupid.
But guess what? Everyone there knows you are new and will want to help get you up to speed quickly and train you the “right” way. And if they don’t? Then they are assholes and you might need to reconsider working in that lab (see post here about effective labs).
Giving this talk within the first 2-3 months is ideal. This is long enough for you to digest what you are doing. You’ve probably gotten your hands wet in lab and hopefully you’ve done or are doing all of the above steps mentioned.
Now you need something that generates urgency and some stress to force you to expand your search in the literature. This also is very challenging because you now have to put into words what is in your head (and make it come out in a cohesive way). It will take a lot of time to put this presentation together. But don’t worry, I’ve got your back.
6) Continuous updates
Continue after your presentation by adding day to day (or at least weekly) updates from the field.
Find a podcast if you can (they are limited). Start with looking at the major journals in your field and seeing if they have something available. Usually they don’t post very often, but that is fine because you have catching up to do.
Attend journal clubs if your department does them or ask senior members to send you some reading material. Then discuss it with them.
The key is to constantly strive to learn more everyday. One way I keep myself in the habit of reading the fields my PhD covers is through the following thought process:
Take what you typically read in a week. Now multiply that by 50. That is how much you will read this year. Is that enough to get you where you want to be?
If not, then it’s time to up your game. Getting an early start is a great way to do that.
If I missed anything that has helped you learn biology please leave a comment below. My goal is for this to be a resource for future students and your thoughts will help me ensure the advice is of high quality.
Remember, we’re all in this together. I’m pulling for ya,